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Why did Liverpool cause Real Madrid some trouble?

Real Madrid clinched a berth into the Champions League round of 16, but the very few issues within Carlo Ancelotti's side were evident against Liverpool at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

Prior to kickoff, Brendan Rodgers stole the headlines with his decision to rest key players such as Steven Gerrard, Mario Balotelli, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson for their tilt with the reigning European champions. Rodgers opted for grit, and physicality by forming a trio of Emre Can, Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva in midfield. Likewise, Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana flanked lone striker Fabio Borini, and Kolo Toure started at the heart of Liverpool's back-line.

With a key Premier League match against Chelsea looming, Rodgers decided to rest his players to avoid a potential burnout, as the Reds play three games - against Newcastle, Real, and Chelsea - in seven days. The front six, however, suited Rodgers' pragmatic approach at the Bernabeu. Opposed to attacking the hosts from the opening whistle like Rodgers' men attempted at Anfield, Liverpool sat deeper in a 4-5-1 and allowed the European champions to surge freely past the halfway line.

Liverpool were organized and compact without the ball, with Allen following Modric, while Lucas, Can and Lallana remained narrow as Isco and James drifted into central areas aiming to overload the midfield. Lallana was free to move centrally due to Alvaro Arbeloa's limited attacking threat, but Markovic was handed the task of dealing with the adventurous Marcelo.

Equally, Real inflicted majority of their damage down the left flank. Isco combined with Benzema in the opening minutes to find James at the edge of the box, but Simon Mignolet pushed his effort aside. Nonetheless, the buildup to Real's winner developed down the left. Isco and Marcelo overloaded right-back Javier Manquillo, and the latter delivered a well-weighed ball across the six-yard box for Karim Benzema's sole goal.

With both wide players drifting into central areas, space was available for both fullbacks to push forward, and Markovic's disinterest in tracking back, enabled Marcelo freedom to stretch the field. Marcelo was involved in Madrid's best chances from open play, combining with Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco in the second half to create opportunities for Benzema, while Bale rattled the crossbar from the Brazilian's delivery.

Liverpool, however, didn't offer a natural attacking threat. Initially, they broke slowly into Real's half, but lacked the quality to get behind Los Blancos' two banks of four. Real quickly halted Liverpool's counters by pressing higher up the pitch as the first half progressed, thus leading to two defensive errors from Martin Skrtel and Lucas; but neither Ronaldo, nor Marcelo could convert the away side's mistakes into goals.

However, Liverpool improved marginally in the second half, and recorded their first shot in the 55th minute through Alberto Moreno's tame effort from distance. Real tired as the half progressed and their pressing decreased, thus providing Liverpool space to break out of their half, and sustain short spells of possession.

The Reds' best chance came two minutes later with Moreno finding Lallana between the lines, but the England international flashed his shot wide. At times it felt like Henderson's energetic running and Sterling's pace would prove beneficial as Borini tireless battles against two quality centre-backs was ineffective, while Liverpool's attempt to pose a threat on the counter attack lacked dynamism.

Rodgers' decision to chase the match in the latter stages of the second half was logical, but Sterling, Coutinho, and Gerrard failed to influence Liverpool's attack.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, didn't equal Raul's Champions League goal haul despite taking 10 shots on goal, with Mignolet stopping fifty per-cent of the Portuguese forward's attempts. Ronaldo often dropped deeper in search of space, and combined well with Benzema, but the lack of a final ball and admirable defending from Kolo Toure kept Real's talisman off the score sheet. Real nearly doubled their lead on a few occasions on the break, but once a disciplined winger in Sterling was introduced, the home side's attacking route was negated.

Ancelotti's men, though, weren't at their best for large portions of the match and never sustained a decent spell of pressure against Rodgers' tampered side. Real struggle to dominate matches against sides that can defend and remain compact as a unit because there's no space to penetrate between the lines or behind the back four. It's one of the reasons why Atletico have been successful against Real in recent memory, and with several starters on the bench, Liverpool proved that this approach is effective against Ancelotti's side.

Real's remarkable winning streak remained intact at the Bernabeu, but the reigning European champions struggled to break down a weakened, yet organized Liverpool side, in what should have been a straightforward victory.

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